On a disc of 18th-Century Flemish Harpsichord Music
one may expect to hear a considerable number of pieces which
are hardly known or even completely unknown. That is certainly
the case here. Only Josse Boutmy and Dieudonné Raick are not
completely unknown quantities as far as music for harpsichord
is concerned. A selection of sacred compositions by Charles-Joseph
van Helmont have been recorded and released by the Belgian label
Eufoda. The most prominent composer from Flanders in the first
half of the 18th century was Joseph Hector Fiocco (1703-1741),
whose keyboard works have been recorded by Ton Koopman (Astrée,
1978) and Ewald Demeyere (Accent, 2007). The latter now presents
a survey of keyboard works by some of Fiocco's compatriots
Once Flanders was the birthplace of some of the greatest composers
of their time. I am referring here to the 15th and 16th centuries,
when representatives of the so-called Franco-Flemish school
dominated Europe. Their influence lasted well into the time
that the dominance of the polyphony was broken and a new concertante
style emerged in Italy. From that point forwards the music scene
in Flanders was in decline. It was mostly music from elsewhere
which was performed. Music by home-grown composers was largely
under French or Italian influence. One of the most important
masters was Henry Du Mont, but he worked mainly in Paris. Names
which are not totally unfamiliar are Nicolas Hotman, Nicolaes
a Kempis, Philippus van Wichel and especially Carolus Hacquart.
It is telling that the latter worked most of his life in Amsterdam.
During the 18th century an improvement in the economic situation
led to a rise in the level of music-making. In the field of
religious music several composers were active whose works are
now being rediscovered. These include the above-mentioned Van
Helmont and Fiocco, but also Bréhy and De Croes. There was also
much activity in the realm of theatrical music which shows a
strong French influence. In the entry on Belgium in New
Grove it is stated that "[associated] with the flowering
of harpsichord building, there was in the first half of the
18th century a golden age of harpsichord music in the southern
Netherlands." Some of the composers of keyboard music have
already been mentioned. If we read the liner-notes by Ewald
Demeyere in the booklet of this recording one has to come to
the conclusion that the words "golden age" are a little
exaggerated. Demeyere wanted to select only pieces which were
of good quality. Apparently that task wasn't very easy.
In several cases he concludes that the general level of the
harpsichord books by Flemish composers which have survived,
either in print or in manuscript, is not very impressive. In
a number of cases he therefore has recorded only some movements
from a suite or a sonata, because other movements were not,
in his opinion, up to scratch.
Take Ioannes De Boeck, for instance. He is only known as "F.I.
De Boeck", under which name the Amsterdam printer Gerhard
Fredrik Witvogel published two volumes of harpsichord pieces.
Thanks to recent research it appears likely that this name belongs
to Friar Ioannes De Boeck, who was organist of the Antwerp Friary
from 1726 to 1735 and later worked as a priest in Maastricht.
Demeyere writes: "Despite Witvogel's fame as a publisher,
the overall quality of these works is rather low, and, moreover,
De Boeck did not succeed in writing a convincing musical argument
in all the movements of a suite/sonata". There are some
pieces of good level, though, and Demeyere put three of them
together in a sonata, and also recorded the allegro from the
5th Sonata which he considers De Boeck's best
piece. Another victim, as it were, of Demeyere's critical
eye is Natalis Vander Borcht, who was a harpsichordist, organist
and carillon player at St Gertrude's Church in Louvain.
"Besides mediocre ornamentation, the harmonic imperfections
and clumsinesses are the biggest weaknesses in his writing."
Only one piece from his pen could find favour in Demeyere's
eyes: the gratioso con variatione from the Suite
The same excerpted approach is applied even in the case of a
much more renowned master, Josse Boutmy. One movement from his
6e Suite, which Demeyere considers the best of the
Troisième Livre, is omitted "because it is, due
to its (too?) long sequences, of lower quality compared to the
other movements of the suite". In this suite French and
Italian elements appear. This mixture is a feature of most keyboard
music from Flanders. That is also the case in the work of Dieudonné
Raick, who worked as an organist in Louvain, Ghent and Antwerp.
The latest composer in the programme is Ferdinand Staes. He
was active as an organist in Brussels and in this capacity was
once heard by Charles Burney who characterised his play as "masterly".
His extant works are mainly pieces for keyboard with accompaniment
of instruments. As was common at that time - for instance in
the works of Johann Schobert - such parts could be left out.
That is how Demeyere plays the Sonata II from his op.
4, comprising two movements. The seven anonymous pieces are
from a manuscript which is preserved in the library of the Antwerp
Conservatory. It is called (translated): "Volume of a collection
of pieces of music for harpsichord, piano or organ". The
pieces are very different in character. The Legrement,
for instance, sounds like a piece by Domenico Scarlatti. The
Glockenspiel imitates the carillon, and is played here
with the 4' stop of the harpsichord. Some other pieces
are close to the style of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. There are
even reminiscences of the early classical style.
With this disc Ewald Demeyere presents a programme which is
both historically interesting and musically arresting. It could
well be thanks to his critical assessment of extant music that
there are no dull moments here. On the other hand, it is a little
unsatisfying when an interpreter filters the available material.
One could argue that the assessment of music's quality
should be left to the listener. That said, one can hardly expect
an interpreter to play music he doesn't like, for whatever
The liner-notes are illuminating, and Demeyere deserves praise
for his honest assessment of the repertoire and for giving an
account of his choices. His playing is of the highest order,
and he uses the famous Dulcken harpsichord of 1747 which is
preserved in the Vleeshuis Museum in Antwerp. Its gorgeous sound
has been brilliantly captured by the recording engineer.
Johan van Veen
Josse BOUTMY (1697-1779)
6e Suite [19:09]
Dieudonné RAICK (1703-1764)
Suite V, op. 1,5 [13:06]
Glockenspiel allegro [2:29]
Arieta un poco Allegro [2:05]
Air 3te toni allegro [1:40]
DE BOECK (1697-1775)
Suitte Pour le Clavecin ou L'Orgue, op. 1: allegro;
siciliano andante [5:39]
Sonata II, op. 2,2: menuet [1:01]
Ferdinand STAES (1748-1809)
Sonata II, op. 4,2 [6:35]
?Ioannes DE BOECK
Sonata V, op. 2,5: allegro [3:28]
Charles-Joseph VAN HELMONT
2e Suite, op. 1,2: La Lisette Rondeau Tendrement [2:06]
Le luttin allegro [2:10]
Natalis VANDER BORCHT (1729-1785)
Suite VI, op. 2,6: gratioso con Variatione [4:08]